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2015 New Mexico Trip Report

by Nikhil Bahl | May 26, 2016

Copyright Martha MyersEvery workshop leader has their favorite locations. Like so many locations I visit repeatedly, New Mexico has offered something different every time. Whether it is Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge or White Sands National Monument, a new surprise always awaits. One of the main reasons these locations in New Mexico have become two of my favorite workshops is because they are so drastically different in what they have to offer. Photographing birds at Bosque can be fast and furious while at White Sands we take leisurely hikes into the dunes looking for compositions and waiting for the light to change. For me, it’s great to have that change of pace as it keeps me fresh and looking for new opportunities.

Copyright Nikhil Bahl

In December 2015, I led two workshops to Bosque del Apache NWR and White Sands NM for NatureScapes. Like previous years there were new opportunities at both locations. I started with a couple of days scouting at Bosque. The very first morning I headed to the flight deck area to see if the geese would blast off like they normally do. I got there 45 minutes before sunrise. I peered into the main pond and it seems like there was a lot of grass. I could hear the geese but they sounded far away. I changed my position to a clearing where I could view a larger area. Just then the geese went up in unison, about half of a mile away. My lens was way too short to get any worthwhile photos so I just watched what the birds were doing and enjoyed the blastoff. I continued to scout the refuge that morning and found that was not the only change. There weren’t as many birds on the refuge. The numbers of snow geese and Ross’s geese (collectively called light geese) were nowhere near the numbers I had seen before. Since it was rather warm further north the birds had not migrated that far south. This is why I always like to go in a couple of days early to scout before a workshop. It allows me to find the best shooting opportunities. Even a place as consistent as Bosque can change from year to year. The winter of 2015 was very different from previous years I had visited. It’s important to be aware of the changes before leading a group to the location. It is part of the service that is offered to the clients.

Copyright Martha Myers

The word about Bosque having an off year must have got out as there weren’t as many photographers. However, all the changes weren’t bad. Yes, the morning blastoff is usually a great way to start and the birds were far away but they were still photographable with a long lens. While some classic opportunities were not an offering there were a couple of new opportunities. The one I liked the best was a new pond that had several sandhill cranes roosting. For some reason we hardly saw any other people when I took the group there, and they really enjoyed having the place to themselves.

It was great to have 4 repeat clients out of the 8 photographers on the Bosque workshop. The group gelled together as we enjoyed the many photographic opportunities that were presented to us. We made different interpretations of the light geese and the sandhill cranes by changing the angle of light and the shutter speeds.

Copyright Wanda Haxton

Copyright Carl Koch

Copyright David Davidson

Somehow the best blastoff was saved for the last morning and about 7,000–8,000 light geese took off and flew right over us. The visual spectacle is fantastic but the sound just makes the experience incredible. Everyone on the workshop left happy with thousands of images to review.

After saying goodbye to the group I started my 2 hour drive down to Alamogordo which was going to be the base for the White Sands workshop. I checked into the hotel and immediately headed to White Sands NM to scout. 4 miles of hiking revealed that there hadn’t been much wind and there were a lot of footprints to contend with. This would mean slightly longer hikes to get to the pristine sand, which there was plenty of. I always dread that there will be too many footprints but most people don’t go very far from the road and hiking a mile into the dunes could mean you are all by yourself. This can be tricky if you do this close to sunset. People do get lost in the dunes especially when they stay out in the dark.

Going over the first couple of dunes you can lose sight of the road. Using visual cues and following your footsteps back are ways to keep you from getting lost. It’s always good to visit a place like this with someone who knows their way around, unless you have a handheld GPS or an app on your smartphone to help you find your way back to your car. On a previous visit to White Sands, New Mexico, I came across a person walking away from the road and into the dunes looking for the parking lot. I wonder if he would have found his way back had he not run into me.

Copyright Nikhil Bahl

After another 3 mile scouting hike the next morning I passed out after breakfast. I met the group later that afternoon and prepped them for the workshop experience, and the hiking. Everyone seems to dread hiking the dunes but they all say it wasn’t that bad after the workshop. In the winter, the dunes retain water which freezes at night so walking on the white gypsum is not like walking on loose sand on a beach. The white gypsum is quite firm, especially in the mornings, which makes the hike much easier.

Copyright Alisha Anderson

Copyright Rich Fisher

One of the great qualities of the white gypsum is how it takes on the same color as the sky early and late in the day. This trip turned out to have some amazing color displays, which was a real treat for the participants! The best color lasts only about 5 minutes and it is important to be setup and ready to take advantage of it. I didn’t have any photos of the fantastic color to show because I was working with the participants making sure they were getting the shot. I did manage to stop and just enjoy it for a few seconds though. Since it’s so easy to get lost in the photographic process, I try and make an effort to stop myself and take in the beauty. It’s a good reminder as to why I’m taking photos.

Copyright Jeremy Kezer

Copyright David Davidson

After 3 days of photography and hiking the workshop participants were tired but satisfied. Both the workshop groups were very enjoyable and I had a great time guiding them and sharing my thoughts and philosophies on photography. They fought through some cold weather and long days of being immersed in photography. Most importantly, they left with smiles on their faces, which made my job worthwhile.

I hope you all enjoy the photos taken by some of the workshop participants that have been featured in this article.

About the Author

Nikhil Bahl is a full time professional photographer, author, educator, workshop instructor and environmentalist residing in the Washington D.C. area. Drawing inspiration from nature, Nikhil adopts novel approaches and seeks meaningful interpretations: to create photographs that transcend the commonplace, reflect deeper insights, and convey an enchantment of the subject's beauty.

An offshoot of Nikhil's fine art photography and love of nature is his documentation of wildlife behaviors and habitats. As a volunteer with the National Park Service and U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, his goal is to portray environmental stories with an artistic appeal, so his photographs educate and motivate about the imperative of conservation.

Each year Nikhil leads several photography tours and instructional workshops in the United States and abroad. His teaching encourages participants to advance beyond ordinary photos and develop their own style and vision. Nikhil is a regular speaker at photography clubs, expos and industry events. He authored the acclaimed eBook, Creative Interpretations and writes articles on the creative and technical aspects of photography.

Nikhil's work has been published in a number of print and electronic media and his fine art prints have been widely exhibited in the Washington metropolitan area, and are part of many private collections.

See more of Nikhil's work at www.nikhilbahl.com.

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